Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Miserable Failure as a King

“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The sign they tacked above his head while he hung on a cross read:  “This is the King of the Jews.” The thief crucified next to him wanted Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. And yet, never once did Jesus refer to himself as a king. Not here, not anywhere.

The whole idea of Jesus being a king never came from him. It came from people who lived in a world where the most powerful among them were kings. If you remember the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, you may recall how God led them out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. And, along the way, God formed them into a nation.

In the beginning, God chose people like Moses to lead his people. We can read about this period in the book of Judges. But almost from the get-go, God’s people were whining that they wanted to have a king, like all the other nations. God advised against it, telling them that would be a huge mistake. But they wouldn’t stop whining, so finally God gave them a king. But no king ever solved their problems. In many respects, kings only added to their problems.

Why is it that people long for a king? It’s puzzling. I can understand what’s in it for the king. But what’s in it for the people? Even in a democracy like ours, we have this propensity to long for someone who fills the role of king for us. We’re always looking for the next one to crown. As we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I think back on those days, and it seems like he came as close as any American could come to royalty. People even refer to the time of his presidency as Camelot. And yet, now, 50 years later, we know a lot more about his presidency and we’re able to look at it more objectively. To say that Kennedy was a flawed man is an understatement. King-making is always dangerous. The basic problem with kings is the power we give them. Is it possible to have a king without power?

If you’re really a king, prove it, Jesus. Now’s your big chance. No king is going to die on a cross if he can help it. Make your move, Jesus. Well, if a king is all about power, Jesus proves that he is no king. And that’s the irony of the Christ story. We call him a king. But his life was as far removed from  the life of a king as a person can get. The only way to recognize Jesus as a king is by flipping the definition of a king on its head. 

First, there is the way that a king would typically deal with those who attack him. He would retaliate. He would obliterate his enemies in a way that showed his strength so that nobody else would dare make a move against him again. That’s the way kings rule. Through fear and intimidation and brute force. But Jesus is the one who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and pray for their enemies; he is put to death by his enemies without a fight. Not only that, but, here’s the kicker. He actually forgave the ones who put him there. They stood there and mocked him, after nailing him to a cross, and instead of lashing out at them, he forgave them.

And then there were the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers, who challenged him to save himself. We know that self preservation is the most basic human response to any threatening situation.  We respond to a threat by fighting back or running away (fight or flight). And yet, Jesus does neither. How is that possible? He refuses to save himself.

Now, saving yourself isn’t only about protecting yourself from those who want to do you bodily harm. So much of the interaction we have with other people is about saving ourselves. We save ourselves whenever we want other people to like us. We want to look good to them. We want to save face. And so we present ourselves in ways that are often deceptive; we cover up the parts of ourselves that might cause others to see us in an unfavorable light. We’re always trying to show how we’re better than other people. We may blame someone else for our mistakes. Or it becomes way too important for us to prove that we’re right and the other person is wrong. It’s all a part of saving ourselves.

We had a good discussion about this in my clergy Bible study last week. One of my colleagues, Tim, recalled what had happened the week we met to go over the texts for All Saints Sunday. That week, I had told them I had a great joke I was going to use in my sermon and they asked to hear it. So, I shared it and they all laughed. And then they got quiet… and I knew there was a problem. Finally, Robin asked if there will be children in the congregation when I tell that joke. And I realized that if I told that joke with children present, I’d be in big trouble. So, I didn’t tell it. So last week, when we had a discussion about saving ourselves, Tim recalled how they had saved me from telling that joke on All Saints Sunday.  

And I had to come back with, “Well, it was early in the week. I’m sure that by Sunday I would have figured it out on my own.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew they were going to call me on it, and they did. “Yes, save yourself, Nancy.” It was said in good humor, but ouch! That’s exactly what I had done. Rather than admit that I came really close to saying something stupid in a Sunday sermon, I had to save face and insist that I would have figured it out without their assistance. Yep. I just had to save myself.

How is Jesus able to overcome the way we human beings seem to be hard-wired for self-preservation? When he was dying on the cross, he could have at least turned to the ones who put him there and told them off or cursed them as a way of saving himself. But instead, he forgave them. Jesus died  in a way that was consistent with his teaching. Remember how he taught his followers that the if you work hard to save your life, you’re going to end up losing it, and the only way to save your life is by giving it up? So, he didn’t save himself, and in the process, he saved more than himself.

And then we get to the part with the thief on the cross and we can see another example of how Jesus finished his life the way he had lived it. If you had a continuum with a powerful king on one end and the most wretched of the earth on the other end, it would have been enough if Jesus had simply been human and hung out somewhere in the middle, which is pretty much where we are. That would have been enough. But that’s not where he spent his life. He identified with the lowest of the low right up until his death, crucified between two criminals. He was never one to make comments from afar about how we should all be nice to poor people and sinners and the untouchables. He became one of them. He lived and died in a way that is about as far removed from the life of a king that you can imagine, in solidarity with outcasts.

And yet, the thief on the cross seemed to think that Jesus was about to come into his kingdom. Did the thief see something that seemed to elude everyone else? Did he understand that things going on that day at the place called The Skull weren’t what they appeared to be?

Mocked, derided, hung on a cross to die between two thieves. If you’re a king, prove it to us, the crowd jeered. “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. They thought he was failing the king test miserably. But the thief who hung beside him seemed to know better. We know better, too. We know he was showing the world what kind of a king he was.

No, he is not like any king this earth has ever known before or since. In many ways, he was more of an anti-king than a king. Because kings are supposed to be powerful. And yet, the irony is that he had a power greater than any earthly king has ever had. By emptying himself of all power and giving himself in love, he showed us what true power looks like.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Ordinary Extraordinary Sunday

Yesterday was an ordinary extraordinary morning for me at church. I say ordinary because it was a typical Sunday for Holy Trinity. And ordinarily, a typical Sunday for us is extraordinary. For me, personally, it happened to be my 61st birthday, and there was a sweet moment during the announcements when that was celebrated. It was also a significant day for me because it marked the 45th anniversary of the day water was sprinkled on my forehead as a community of the faithful gathered for worship.

Now, if you do the math, you know that I was 16 years old when I was baptized. I wasn’t raised in a church-going home, so my religious formation was rather random. When I was in junior high, my two best friends, Melody and Barb, went to the Lutheran church and I tagged along. I showed up at confirmation classes with them sporadically, yet it was enough for the pastors to go ahead and confirm me. But then, there was the matter of my baptismal deficiency that had to be dealt with first.  So, I was quickly baptized in order to be confirmed with the rest of the class. At the time, I was mostly concerned about how the moisture on my forehead might have messed up my hair for the pictures later. And yet, now that I look back on that moment and all that’s followed, I know it was a complete game changer for my life. Because of that moment, I have had a lot of ordinary extraordinary days like yesterday.
Our worship began with a baptism. A beautiful child named Jackson was carried to the font by his parents, Mitch and Becki. I had been forewarned that he panics when someone else takes him from his parents, so I was as hands-off as possible. And he also wasn’t crazy about water, so it might be a bit tricky. As his father leaned him over the font, Jackson had a puzzled look on his face. I scooped some warm water into my hand and poured it over his head. He looked completely startled, like he hadn’t yet realized this might be something to cry about. And then I quickly scooped up another handful and poured it on him. Now his look of surprise turned to fear and I saw him look over at his mother. Her eyes were locked with his, telling him that he was safe. But he wasn’t so sure. When the third installment of water was administered, he was just about to cry, but his mother’s look of reassurance saved the day. His frightened eyes met a look of love and encouragement that said, It’s all right, Jackson. I’m right here. Don’t be afraid. Mommy loves you. The parents who brought him to the water were there to carry him through that moment and they will continue to give him all the support he needs for his great adventure of faith.
I thought about a story I heard that morning from Miguel in our adult class. I had asked members of the class how often they read the Bible. Their answers were all across the board with some reading the Bible twice a day, others never reading it at all, and everything in-between. Miguel told us that when he was growing up he watched his father reading his Bible every morning after breakfast. He would randomly open it and read wherever it landed. Now, I’ve heard of other people doing that, so it’s not that unusual.  But then Miguel told us more. He said that he does the same thing now, every morning, just like his father. And all his siblings do, too. When his father died, Miguel had the honor of receiving his Bible, and now when he opens the Bible every morning randomly finding God’s word for his day, he does it with the Bible of the one who taught him this faith practice.
Later in the worship service, we received a group of new members. I called them up to the chancel, where they stood before me in a semi-circle. As I started to read the welcoming rite we use at Holy Trinity, I noticed they were hanging onto one other.  Some had an arm around the person beside them, others were holding hands. It’s as if they were physically supporting one another in love as they took this next step in their faith journey together.  When I saw this, I lost it, and for a moment I was afraid I couldn’t go on.
You see, this wasn’t a typical group of people joining the church. They had all been a part of another congregation. When their church closed, they were devastated. And yet, the Spirit led them to worship with us at Holy Trinity. The first few weeks, they were so happy to be together, despite all they had been through, that they huddled together in the back pews like they might never see one another again. After worship they lingered on the front lawn long after the rest of us had gone home. They were grieving and they needed to be together; they needed to talk about the emotional trauma they had endured. And then, over time, they came to see their struggle in a positive light. They realized that God had brought them to a new church family.  They learned to love a new congregation in a denomination different from the one they had known for so long. And finally, it felt like they were home again. They stood before me on Sunday morning, dear souls holding onto one another in love, one  community of the faithful being transplanted into a larger community of the faithful.  It was a powerful moment that I will never forget.
Now, in case you haven’t connected the dots of the thread running through my Sunday morning, it’s community. If you could imagine pulling a plant up by the roots and expecting it to grow without the soil to nourish it, that’s what it’s like for a person of faith to survive outside community. At least, that’s the way I’ve experienced it in my lifetime. I didn’t grow up the way Jackson will, or the way Miguel did, but somehow, community has found me and guided me along the way.
I’m baffled by people who don’t get this. Especially people who aspire to follow in the way of Jesus and yet see no value in being part of a faith community. I wish they could spend an ordinary extraordinary Sunday morning looking through my eyes at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.  I can’t imagine how they could do that and fail to see the amazing gift that God offers us in Christian community.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What will heaven be like?

Not all questions are alike. There are rhetorical questions where the answers are so obvious, there’s no reason to respond to them. Then there are questions that require a right or a wrong answer. And finally, there are those questions that really have no answers.

A good lawyer is trained never to ask a question to which he or she doesn’t already know the answer. And a good educator is taught the exact opposite. When I was learning how to be a teacher I was taught that the best questions to ask were the ones for which I didn’t know the answer myself.  

If you want people to think, you invite them to use their imagination. When you ask a question and you have no idea what the answer is, you open a conversation. When you ask a question and you already know the answer, there is no conversation.  Taken to the extreme, questions with definitive answers can easily evolve into gotcha questions.

A gotcha question was what the Sadducees asked Jesus in Luke 20:27-40. Right before this, they had asked him another gotcha question. That one had to do with paying taxes to Caesar.  And now they hit him again, firing at him with both barrels. He had entered Jerusalem and raised a ruckus among the people. He had to be stopped before things got completely out of hand.

So, they construct an absurd, hypothetical question to trap Jesus. The law of Moses says that if a man dies and leaves a wife without children, the man’s brother needs to marry his wife and raise up children for his brother who died. So, just suppose there were seven brothers in a family. The first one marries and dies, childless. So then the second one marries the same woman, and remains childless. And then the third, and so on, all the way down the line. (Okay. Just stop and think about that. What man in his right mind would marry this woman after the third of fourth husband died? Heck with the law of Moses. That man would have to be nuts.) Well, anyway, as the story goes, finally, after burying seven husbands, the woman dies.

So, here’s the big question: after marrying all seven men, which one will be her husband after the resurrection? Oh, what a dilemma! How you gonna answer that one Jesus?!

Luke provides us with a little background to expose the hypocrisy of the question. It’s asked by the Sadducees. And the thing about the Sadducees is that they don’t believe in the resurrection. And yet, they’re asking Jesus a question about what will happen at the resurrection.  

The question of what happens after we die has been out there forever.  In the Old Testament, people’s understanding of it evolved. The idea of the dead being resurrected came later, when it was adopted by some believers, but not by others. The Sadducees basically followed the earlier books of the scriptures, the Books of Moses, which didn’t support the newfangled ideas about the resurrection of the dead that the Pharisees embraced. So, this was a theological hot potato. It was a gotcha question. Jesus knew that. And yet, he didn’t answer it like a gotcha question. He answered it as if he had been invited into an open conversation.

First, he said that marriage is something people do in this age, but when the resurrection comes, marriage will become irrelevant. So much of what we believe about the next life is based on what we know of this life. If our relationships are important to us, we can’t imagine living without them. And, of course, there are a lot of other things that we’re attached to in this life: music, certain foods, our pets, our smart phones. How could we ever be happy without the stuff we cherish the most? And yet, in Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ question, he’s saying that the stuff we think is so important in this life isn’t going to matter a hill of beans in the next life. We can’t begin to understand that because our only point of reference is this life. So, when we imagine what heaven will be like for us, we picture it in ways we’ve already experienced. 

It’s like a two-year old wondering if she will be able to take two pacifiers with her when the time comes for her to go to college. She can’t imagine a world without pacifiers, and college is so far removed from her experience that she can’t begin to get her head around what that would mean for her.  It may help her to picture going to college one day with her pacifiers, but those of us who are older know beyond a doubt that when the time comes, the question over pacifiers will have become completely obsolete.  That isn’t all that different than the ways we think about life after death. We just can’t get our heads around what we have never experienced. 

Jesus says more about the resurrected life as he talks about what really matters. He says that, from our perspective, we make a distinction between life and death. We’re either dead or we’re alive. But that’s not how God sees us. From God’s perspective we’re all alive. We’re all alive because we’re in a relationship with the God who loves us and that relationship never ends.

In other words, Jesus tells his examiners, the things you’re worried about are kinda silly, when you look at them from God’s perspective. Well, we’re still obsessed with what happens to us when we die.  And why wouldn’t we be? It’s the great unknown that, one day, every one of us will come to know.

Last week we celebrated Dias de los Muertos and Halloween. And just look how popular “Walking Dead” is and all the movies about zombies. And vampires. And all the books about people who have had near death experiences and what they saw. We’re fascinated by the dead because we want to know what they know. But, the thing is, even the people who claimed that they died and came back to tell us what they saw, even those people haven’t truly died. If they died, their brains would stop working. And they would have nothing to tell us. The fact is, no living person has ever died and come back to tell us what it was like. Well, except Jesus. But, interestingly, when he came back from the dead, he really never described what it was like for his friends. I suspect that’s because he couldn’t have described it in a way they would ever understand.

They were still like babies, wondering if they will be able to take two pacifiers or one when they go to college. How could a two year old ever grasp what it would be like to move away from home and live in a dorm and eat cafeteria food, and go to classes, and study, and scrape together money for tuition, and drink too much at a party, and fall in love, and worry about finding a job after they graduate, and all the stuff people do in college. If you told them all that, they would still be wondering about their pacifiers.

But what we need to know about life after death Jesus has told us. We are God’s children. We will always be God’s children. The love God has for us will never end. God is the God of the living. In God we are always alive. God is there to hear our borning cry. All along the way God is there. And when we finally close our eyes for the last time… guess who’s there? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Goose Bump in the Woods

About 20 years ago in the town where I was living in Ohio, an amusing phenomenon was going on. Everywhere you looked, someone had a concrete goose sitting on their front porch. They were painted white, with an orange beak, and stood just about the size of a real goose. Now, the fun part was that people couldn’t just let them stand there naked. They dressed them. In fact there was a whole cottage industry of selling outfits for concrete geese. I used to think they were the silliest things, and often remarked about them to my parishioners. “Did you see the goose on the corner dressed like a pink flamingo?” “How ‘bout that goose dressed like Abraham Lincoln?” I thought it was a hoot.

Apparently, I had commented about them one too many times, because the people in my church concluded that I must like them. So, they surprised me and gave me one. It was wearing a blue and white gingham dress and a yellow straw hat. Because it was given in love, I felt compelled to put my new goose out in front my house. And of course, I had to dress it: like a pumpkin, a turkey, Santa, a leprechaun, an Easter bunny. When my daughter graduated from high school I bought a cap and gown for it to wear. In the summer it had a little Cleveland Indians uniform.

Well, this went on for a couple of years and then I got a call to serve at a church in North Carolina. I had no intention of bringing the goose with me. But there was a problem. The people of my new church and the ones from my old church got together and loaded the moving van for me. They were just about to close the door to the van when one of them shouted, “Oh, don’t forget the goose!” And on the truck it went. Oy!

So, I moved the goose to my new home in North Carolina, where people knew nothing of concrete geese. It embarrassed me, and I never once dressed it. It sat there naked on my porch for a couple of years until it was time for me to move to my new condo and I wasn’t about to move that goose with me. But do you have any idea how difficult it is to dispose of a concrete goose? I couldn’t lift it, and I certainly couldn’t throw it in the trash can. But I had a plan.

Next to my house there was a little wooded lot. So I dragged the goose into the trees and dug a deep hole. As I tipped the goose over, it dove head first into the earth. After I filled the hole in with dirt, I noticed that a little bit of the tail, maybe an inch or two, was poking up through the ground. I hadn’t dug deep enough. But that was it. I was done with the goose, and I left it like that.

I often think about that little white goose tail sticking up in the woods. I imagine someone tripping over it someday and wondering, “What the heck is that?” And maybe they’ll dig it up. It might be some archeologist years from now and she’ll wonder what one of those strange concrete images they found in the area formerly known as Ohio, is doing here 500 miles to the south. For the fact is, even though I tried to get rid of that darned goose, it’s still there. And now someone in the future will have to deal with.

This Sunday we celebrated All Saints at worship. As a part of our liturgy, we remember those who have died. But All Saints includes more than those who have gone before us. It’s a great procession that includes us. And it is a procession that continues; there are those who will come after us, too. What will we be leaving behind us for them? Will they be stumbling over the stuff we tried to cover up, but couldn’t? Will they be living on a sustainable planet? Will they be cleaning up our mess? Will they be further buried in the consumerism that consumes us? Will they try to solve the world’s problems through violence because that’s the only way we’ve taught them? Will they be fueled by hatred and fear? Or will they learn from us a better way, a way of compassion and understanding?

For those who come after me, I really hope that I can leave behind more than a concrete goose in the woods.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Lord, I Wanna Be in That Number!

   On this All Saints Day, I’m thinking about my second call. It was a two-point parish with a town church and a rural church. The first time I went to that little country church, I noticed that there was a cushion in one of the pews, but nobody sat in it.  When I asked about it, I learned that the cushion belonged to a man named John, who was homebound and couldn’t get to church.  I met John and saw him regularly when I took Holy Communion to his home, but I never saw him in church.  And yet, his place was still there; the cushion waited for him on the pew.  After John died, I wondered what would become of his cushion, since now we knew beyond a doubt that he wouldn’t be coming back and he would never sit on that cushion again. Well, nobody touched it.  For as long as I remained at that church, John’s cushion remained in the pew.
   What if every worshiper had a place marker like that?  And what if we never removed them, even when the person died, so that we’d always be reminded of their presence in worship?  Some of us who have been a part of a particular faith community for a while probably know exactly where their cushions would be.  And then, imagine seeing all of those who have worshiped in that space through the years at the same time. That’s what the communion of saints is about.  We’re connected to God’s people of every time; there is a oneness we share with people we can no longer literally see. They’re very much with us.
   Now, you don’t have to die to be a saint. But as long as our pilgrimage on earth continues, we are saints who carry a heavy load. We’re people who have all kinds of limitations that keep us from being completely the people God created us to be.  We’re less than whole as God’s saints. It’s like we’re carrying this heavy weight on our backs. We’re never free of it.  No matter how much we grow in God’s grace, we can’t shake it.  We’re always burdened by it.  But when we leave this earth, that burden is removed from us.  We leave it behind. The sinner part of us dies; only the saint part of us lives on.  We finally become whole people, freed from our earthly limitations. 
   Just imagine how it would feel to carry a heavy pack on your back for years and years and then to finally have it removed.  Imagine how freeing that would feel.  That’s what that phrase in the hymn “For All the Saints” is talking about when it says, “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”  We’re all saints.  But some of us are feebly struggling saints, while others are gloriously shining saints.  All Saints Day is a time to give thanks for the saints who once feebly struggled through life as we do, but now in glory shine.  Even if we never knew them, they are the ones who have it made it possible for us to be here today.
   There’s an old African parable that tells about the process ants go through when they come to a small stream and want to get across it. The first ant comes to the stream and steps out into the water, only to be swept away downstream.  And the next ant comes to the water’s edge and the same thing happens.  One by one the ants come, and they are swept away by the water.  But, eventually, there are the bodies of dead ants accumulating on the water’s edge.  Until, finally, there are enough dead ants that they span all the way across the water.  Now, the ants that follow are able to cross the stream of water by walking on the backs of those who have gone before them.  As the story goes, this is a metaphor for the whole human race. 
   It’s a story that has stayed with me over the years as I think about those whose backs I have walked upon in my life. As a woman pastor I think about those who came before me who didn’t make it to the other side of the stream, but provided a way for women like me: the women missionaries who came before me, the women who first served as presidents of the congregations, the women who started the first women’s organizations.  Way back when, this was a bone of contention in many congregations and those women took a lot of grief because they wanted to make their own unique contribution to the life of the church.  I would not be a pastor in the church today, were it not for the courageous ministry of those women.
   As we get ready to head to the polls to vote, I can’t help but think about the people whose backs I will walk across to get into the voting booth: the colonists who fought for freedom in our country and the women suffragettes who marched for the right to vote. 
   When I walk through the door to my church on Sunday, I know that I will be walking on the backs of those who came before us: the people of St. Mark’s Lutheran church who started our congregation as a mission church; Pastor William Lutz, the first pastor of Holy Trinity back in 1916 and all the pastors who followed him; all who contributed financially so that future generations would have a place to worship and do ministry; those who struggled through times of crisis and wouldn’t give up.  They weren’t just the ones who were here before us, they were the ones who have made it possible for us to be here.  No doubt, many of them could not have imagined what our church might be like today, but they provided the way for us to get here.
   What about us? There will be others coming after us, walking on our backs to get to the next place God is calling them.  Just as those who came before us have left a legacy for us, someday we’ll be doing that for those who follow us. So, we march on and take our place within the great procession of saints.